Chinese new high-speed rail network sets the bar for ground transportation, other countries try to play catch-up.
While passenger rail travel networks have either disintegrated into discontinuation or seem to be on the verge of doing so in the Americas, in Asia they are still a dominant form of transportation that’s being actively revitalized for the 21st century. In the age of personal automobiles, buses, and airplanes, people in China are still opting for the train in droves. There is no sign here than rail travel is waning in the face of its competition; conversely, it is thriving.
If I ever had any questions about China’s massive passenger rail network surviving through the globalization age, they were extinguished the moment I stepped inside of a sleek white, blue pin-stripped, ultra-aerodynamic, high speed train for the first time. I was on a D — dongchezu — train, which is not the fastest type that China has available, but, being able to go over 250 km an hour, it still falls in the “bullet” category.
The fastest trains that China has are the G, or gaosu, trains which can travel at speeds of over 350 km an hour — almost unbelievably fast for something still touching the ground.
Having first assessed the prospects of a high-speed rail network in 1990, it was not until the early 2000’s that China began creating them. Like with many other governmental initiatives in the Middle Kingdom, this project was taken to the extreme, and in a relatively short period of time China built the world’s largest high-speed rail transportation network. As of now, the country has over 8,358 km (5,193 mi) of rail routes capable of passenger trains going at least 200 km/h (124 mph), which includes 2,197 km (1,365 mi) of lines that can carry trains going 350 km/h (217 mph). Over the past seven or eight years, China has been building what they dub the National High-Speed Rail Grid, which is composed of 8 high-speed rail corridors — 4 going north-south and 4 going east-west. With as many as 100,000 workers kicking out each line, over half of the system was finished within six years. This grid will eventually contain 12,000 km (7,456 mi) of track, but China does not seem poised to stop here: by 2015 it is estimated that the country will have 18,000 km of high-speed rail lines in operation.
The bounds on speed are also being increased by leaps and bounds. In 1993, the average speed of a passenger train in China was a mere 48 km/h. At that time it was looking as if rail transportation in China may have been going in the direction that it has in many other countries, as it was clearly becoming obsolete in the face of highway and air transport. It was then that the national government began the first of what they dubbed railway “speed-up” campaigns. Essentially, this just meant that China was going to overhaul their rail lines to make them run quicker and more efficiently. By 2004, after five of these “speed-up” campaigns, passenger service on 7,700 km (4,800 mi) of existing tracks was upgraded to reach speeds of 160 km/h (100 mph). A drastic improvement which may have clinched a future for train travel in China, as well as laid the groundwork for the railway revolution that’s taking place in the country today.
China now seems to currently be in its 6th speed-up campaign as it is again revitalizing its rail network to meet the high-speed demands of the current era. Apart from upgrading many rail lines to support high-speed trains and laying thousands of kilometers of new track, the speed of the fast trains themselves has been rising in rapid increments. As of now, the fastest rail line in operation in China connects Wuhan with Guangzhou, a distance of 968 km that can be traversed by passengers in a mere three hours. The new Beijing-Shanghai line that was just opened to the public in June of 2011 is the first in the world approved for top speeds in the range of 380 km/h (236 mph). “Super-speed” trains are also in the works, and China has announced that they are engineering one that can go over 500 km/h.
It is clear that China is not only maintaining their passenger rail lines, but they are exponentially upgrading the entire system and leaving the rest of the world far behind in this regard.
The high-speed train that I was on appeared relatively new — the seats were not yet grody and the ceilings and walls had yet to be tinted yellow from cigarette smoke. The inside was just like an ordinary Chinese train, only better: the seats were more comfortable with more leg room, the toilets had real septic tanks rather than just holes bored through the floor, the sinks actually had soap, the hot water spigots did not have disgusting cloths hanging from them to tame the water flow, the food in the dining car was not only edible but tasted pretty good, and I could not help but to notice that the hostesses were younger, better dressed, and vastly more attractive . . .
I usually don’t take these high-speed trains because I always assumed that they would cost more. But as I compared ticket prices from Shanghai to Xiamen, it became apparent that the fares were comparable. If I took a hard sleeper class standard train, I would have dropped between 290 to 311 RMB on a ride that would have taken 27 hours, on the high speed train the fare was between 266 and 343 RMB for an eight and a half hour journey. It was clear that the high-speed D train would get me to my destination in a third of the time for virtually the same price.
This seems to be a general rule for train travel in China: D class high-speed trains are often comparably priced with hard sleeper class on a standard T or K class train. There’s no debate here, if you’re not vagabonding it in the steerage compartment, go D class high-speed when you can. The only draw back is that you only get a seat on a high-speed train rather than a bunk — but as you travel so fast on these trains, a bed is not really something you need.
This sentiment seems to be rather widely felt here, as the clientele on the high-speed D train did not seem that much different than in the hard sleeper class on standard trains. There were the low ranking business men, the people returning home from shopping trips, the students, families going to visit relatives, a group of geriatric bicyclers (fold-up bikes can be brought on board), men playing cards in the dinning car. These were the same people that I ride with in sleeper class on sub-high speed trains — and they should be, as the fare is pretty much the same, the ride far better, and the trip made two to three times quicker.
China’s high-speed setback
“Next stop: Wenzhou,” sounded from the overhead speaker on the train, and I felt myself cringe up with a sense of the ominous. “Wenzhou” is a single word that represents an incident that truly made China’s high-speed rail development check itself, pull in the reigns, and take a big step backwards. In July of 2011, two high-speed trains not unlike the one I was riding in crashed here. 40 passengers died, 192 were hospitalized. Apparently, one train was struck by lightening, which left it sitting stationary on the track where it was then rear ended by an oncoming train due to a faulty signalling device. This was a national crisis that was blamed on corruption, incompetence, faulty equipment, and the irresponsibly fast development of the high-speed rail networks.
Following this disaster, regulations went into place to stall the creation of new high-speed lines, and the max allowed speed of most D trains was reduced from 250 km/h to 200, and most G trains from 350 km/h to around 300. Though this incident momentarily derailed China’s high-speed rail ambitions, it is my impression that they are now getting back on track, and hundreds of billions of dollars continues being pumped into the continuation of the high-speed rail network.
Why take a high-speed train?
I was impressed as I rode through the eastern seaboard of China at 200 km/h. There would be no way that I could ever really travel this fast by car or bus. I sat back, relaxed, chatted with the veterinarian sitting next to me about how he loves taking care of pigs and cows, took some notes, snapped photos and videos, and enjoyed the ride. I could get up and walk around as I pleased, and I spent a large portion of the trip hanging out in the dinning car — as I always do on long distance trains.
Personal automobiles are becoming incredibly popular in China, but many people seem to opt for riding trains when traveling long distances. It’s vastly faster, for one thing — there is no way that you could drive a car at 200 km/hr down the highways of China and expect to live for very long. While on these fast trains you can travel super fast while sitting back, drinking a beer, playing cards, and relaxing.
This is a big statement, but I mean it: public transportation doesn’t get any better than riding in a high-speed train across China. Planes are faster, sure, but the experience is nowhere near as enjoyable — at best, you belt yourself into an aluminum tube and hope there’s something good on the TV. Flying isn’t travel, it’s teleportation: you hang in suspended animation from take off until landing. What do you see on a flight? For five minutes just after getting up in the air and again when coming back down you get a pretty cool view out the window, but for the remaining hours there just isn’t much to look at. Bus travel, well, it can be highly interesting, but it is seldom truly enjoyable. Bus travel is just one of those things a traveler must do from time to time, and you make the most of it. Train travel — where you can get up, walk around, interact with people beyond those sitting right next to you, eat a warm meal, look out the windows from multiple vantage points, and have the option of sitting, standing, or, if in a sleeper car, laying down is public transportation in its best form — and I’ve never been on a better train than these high-speed ones that China now has.
Rail travel is being readjusted here for the future.
High-speed rail lines and business
But efficiency of transportation is not only something to make the lives of passengers a little easier, but it is the grease of business. With this high-speed rail grid, China has essentially linked many of its inner provinces with its economic powerhouse cities on the coast. This rail network has been compared to Eisenhower’s interstate system in the USA, and it’s economic/ social/ and political impacts on China may prove to be nearly as great. As the NY Times reported:
For the United States and Europe, the implications go beyond marveling at the pace of Communist-style civil engineering. China’s manufacturing might and global export machine are likely to grow more powerful as 200-mile-an-hour trains link cities and provinces that were previously as much as 24 hours by road or rail from the entrepreneurial seacoast.
Meanwhile, a shift in passenger traffic to the new high-speed rail routes has freed up congested older rail lines for freight. That has allowed coal mines and shippers to switch to cheaper rail transport from costly trucks for heavy cargoes.
Because of this shift, plus the construction of additional freight lines, the tonnage hauled by China’s rail system increased in 2010 by an amount equaling the entire freight carried last year by the combined rail systems of Britain, France, Germany and Poland, according to the World Bank.
While the United States is planning on implementing the initial stages of high-speed rail lines by 2030, China has a full fledged network in operation today. And China does not even seem satisfied with this, as the word “maglev” keeps popping up in debates about the future of the country’s high-speed rail ambitions. To be honest, I can see a seventh “speed-up” rail travel campaign sweeping China, as trains with wheels are replaced by maglevs. The fastest commercial train in operation in the world today runs between Shanghai’s Pudong airport and the city. It travels up to 431 km/h and traverses the 30.5 km distance in less than seven and a half minutes.
Now apply these numbers to a long distance route and we’re looking at the potential future of travel. I fear that I am not being preposterous when I say that the future of intra-continental transportation may led by a souped-up, ultra-vitalized relic from the 19th century: the train.
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